Having abolished last year direct elections for the post of republic head, Daghestan’s parliament adopted analogous legislation last month excluding the direct election of heads of municipalities.
Instead, in future the municipality head will be chosen by the municipal council. But whereas urban municipal councils will still be directly elected (either under the majoritarian or proportional system or a combination of the two), at the raion level they will be composed of the heads of lower level district councils plus additional members of the district councils in question (one such representative per 1,000 population). The independent weekly “Chernovik” has calculated that this will result in huge discrepancies in the size of the raion-level municipal councils (from 12 to 142 members). At present, the average is 19 to 25 members.
The new law thus effectively divides Daghestan’s population into two categories, one of which will have even less say than the other in determining who will (at least in theory) promote and defend the interests of the region or town in which they live.
The handful of parliament deputies representing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation denounced the law as antidemocratic. Other opposition politicians have questioned its constitutionality. Albert Esedov, head of the regional branch of Yabloko, pointed out that the members of local councils were not elected with a specific mandate to elect the head of that municipality.
Magomed Magomedov of the Mediafakt news agency and Milrad Fatullayev, chief editor of the weekly “Nastoyashchee vremya,” both objected that the constitution of the Russian Federation and the relevant federal legislation both give local councils the choice to determine how district heads are elected. Daghestan is nevertheless not the first or the only federal subject where direct elections for the post of municipality heads have been done away with: the oblasts of Volgograd and Rostov did so in May and July respectively.
It is true that elections in Daghestan, whether to local councils or to the republic’s parliament, have frequently given rise to violence and bloodshed between supporters of rival candidates from different ethnic groups. Most commentators, however, interpret the new law as dictated in the first instance not by the need to preclude such clashes but by republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov’s frustration at his lack of leverage over entrenched powerful local barons.
At the same time, some of them doubt whether the new procedures will have the desired result, especially given that the officials in question will continue to serve in that capacity until the end of their elected term.
The widespread popular perception of Abdulatipov, a former diplomat and expert on interethnic relations whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named as Daghestan’s acting leader in January 2013, is of a man enamored with the sound of his own voice who can hold forth until the cows come home on his vision of what kind of polity Daghestan should become. He is, however, prevented from transforming that vision into reality by powerful political and economic interest groups whose members perceive it as a threat to their own, diverging agendas and thus seek constantly to undermine him. And having spent virtually his entire political career outside his home republic, Abdulatipov does not have a long-established and loyal support base to counter those efforts.
Some observers posit a direct link between the timing of the parliament vote on the new law and the ongoing standoff between Abdulatipov and Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani who has headed the southeastern Derbent Raion since 1998. Abdulatipov had announced in June that Kurbanov would step down, and hinted that he would be replaced by Justice Minister Azadi Ragimov (also an Azerbaijani). But Kurbanov refused to quit his post, arguing that he had been elected by popular vote and intended to serve until his term ends in March 2015. Kurbanov was arrested last week on a charge of exceeding his authority by illegally selling 56 hectares of state-owned land and is currently under house arrest.
A second possible reason why Abdulatipov wanted the law changed concerns the vacant post of mayor of Makhachkala.
On September 18, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the 10-year prison term handed down in July by the North Caucasus Military Court to Said Amirov, who was suspended last year from the post of Makhachkala mayor after being arrested and charged with plotting to kill Sagid Murtazaliyev, the former wrestling champion who now heads the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund. Murtazaliyev, whom the prosecution identified as Amirov’s main political opponent, was a key witness at his trial. The Supreme Court ruling means that Amirov can now at last be formally removed from office.
The Makhachkala municipal council voted in late August, presumably at Abdulatipov’s bidding, to abolish direct elections for the post of mayor, but the Justice Ministry declined to endorse that decision. Direct elections would therefore have been unavoidable had the new legislation not been rushed through parliament. Some observers have suggested that in such a direct ballot, Murtazaliyev might have defeated the current acting mayor, Magomed Suleymanov, whom Abdulatipov named to that post in April.
A win by Murtazaliyev, who like Abdulatipov is an Avar, would have contravened the unwritten agreement that the post of Makhachkala mayor is reserved for a Dargin. The Dargins (who account for 17 percent of the total population of 2.96 million) are the second largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups after the Avars (29.4 percent). Both Amirov and Suleymanov are Dargins, as are Abdulatipov’s predecessor as republic head, Magomedsalam Magomedov (currently a senior Kremlin official) and Magomedov’s father Magomedali, who served State Council chairman (de facto president) from 1994-2006.
The Dargins do not constitute a monolithic political lobby, but the various powerful Dargin families, including the Magomedovs, reportedly do not encroach on each other’s interests. At present the so-called “Mekegi clan,” named after a village in Daghestan’s Lavash Raion south of Makhachkala, is regarded as the most influential Dargin grouping. Its members include republican Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov; his brother Sirazhudin; their cousins on their mother’s side, Magomed Suleymanov and former Izberbash Mayor Abdulmedjid Suleymanov; State Procurement Committee Chairman Marat Dalgatov; and Djamaludin Omarov, who resigned in August after serving for 16 years as mayor of Kaspiisk.
In a further move to render the post of Makhachkala mayor less influential, and thus less attractive as a possible stepping-stone to that of republic head, Daghestan’s parliament has passed in the first reading a bill on dividing the capital into four separate municipalities, of which each would have its own head. According to Eduard Khidirov, who heads the Patriots of Russia parliament faction, one option being discussed behind the scenes is to restore municipality status to the predominantly Kumyk-populated settlement of Tarki on the city’s southwestern outskirts. The Kumyks launched a series of protests in June 2012 to demand that the villages of Tarki, Alburikent, and Kyakhulay be designated a separate municipal district, but without success.